The Other Side of Masks

“I reveal myself one mask at a time”
Stephen Dunn

Courage Mask by Gioia

Courage Mask by Gioia

Rebecca and I have recently been using masks in our work. Although they’re often used in art therapy, we were both conflicted about what they represent. Are they meant to hide or protect some aspect of ourselves? Do they reflect what we show to the world and obscure our “true” selves. Or do they help us uncover and discover parts of ourselves? In keeping with our efforts to find positive reframes for the way we approach our work, we decided that we could use them to highlight and celebrate some empowering aspect of ourselves.

For example, in a recent workshop, Rebecca had a client decorate a mask that she said was devoted to “What I keep from myself.” Her client said that, “It’s not so much about what I present to the world. I feel like I am authentic and people get me. It’s more about my sense that I feel like I don’t know myself.” She chose a mask in the shape of a butterfly and delicately decorated it with soft pastels in purple and yellow hues which she said looked like a sunset. She was surprised at how visually pleasing it was and realized that it represented a sense of beauty and gentleness which she tended to minimize in herself.

When Gioia uses maskmaking with people in recovery, she suggests that they explore the courage that they had to draw upon when they decided to take on the disease of drug or alcohol addiction. We like to define “Courage” as exercising the willingness to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either internal or external. The work “courage” and “encourage” come from the French root word coeur, which means, “heart.” Courage can manifest in the following ways:

Bravery (Valor)
The ability to do what needs to be done despite fear-not being fearless but overcoming one’s fear. May be physical valor shown by warriors, but may also be doing what is right despite consequences, facing a serious illness, or resisting peer pressure and standing up for what is right.

Persistence (Perseverance/Industriousness)
Finishing what one is trying to accomplish despite obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement. Taking care of business, staying on task, mustering the gritty will to perform in the face of boredom, difficulty, and the temptation to do something easier.

Integrity (Authenticity/Honesty/Sincerity)
Taking responsibility for how one feels and what one does, genuine presentation of oneself to others as well as the internal sense that one is a morally coherent being. Being true to oneself, practicing what one preaches, accurately representing privately and publicly one’s internal state, intentions, and commitments.

Vitality (Zest/ Enthusiasm/Vigor/Energy)
Feeling alive, having “joie de vivre,” energy that is experienced not as nervousness, or hyperactivity, but as good energy available to the self and visible to others. A sense of physical well-being and vigor, as well an activated positive emotional state, a sense of enthusiasm.

Although many of Gioia’s clients, when they think of courage, don’t identity with bravery, they do connect with persistence and grit in the face of adversity and with the renewed vitality that they are experiencing in recovery. Rebecca’s client showed courage by addressing the disparity between her internal sense of herself and what the outside world sees in her. Although she was initially struggling with connecting to positive aspects of herself, she immediately got it when she saw the beauty and grace in her butterfly mask.

So as you think about masks that you might wear in the world, think about ones that would celebrate something that you want to recognize and cultivate.

Positively yours, Gioia and Rebecca

Art directive
Make a mask of a courageous person you admire on an outline of a mask or store-bought prepared masks (available at craft stores). Decorate the mask by exploring what comes to you when you think about your fearless ideal. You can draw, paint or use collage or cut paper. What characteristics would this figure have? Is this a person, animal or mythical creature? Of the different kinds of courage, such as bravery, persistence, integrity, or vitality, which might it feature? Write about situations where you might benefit from wearing this mask.